Rock gig conceptualised as arts event as The Observatory explore gamelan music

Local band The Observatory whose members are (from left) Leslie Low, Yuen Chee Wai, Vivian Wang and Cheryl Ong.
Local band The Observatory whose members are (from left) Leslie Low, Yuen Chee Wai, Vivian Wang and Cheryl Ong. PHOTO: PHILIPP ALDRUP

The Observatory's Continuum Album Launch and Concert

Substation Theatre/Thursday

Since forming in 2001, local indie band The Observatory have held the fort within the Singapore music scene with their ever-morphing blend of rock, folk, jazz and electronica.

Perhaps, "art rock" is a convenient catch-all term to label their style of music. But in its seventh and latest album, Continuum, one senses a continuing exploration in testing the line between art and rock - in this case, mixing Balinese gamelan music with experimental rock.

On Thursday, the first of the two sold-out launch concerts for Continuum, around 100 people perched upon retractable seats in the Substation Theatre to watch the band - with members from the local BronzAge Gamelan ensemble - play the album sequentially from start to finish.

Continuum Part 1 kicked off with Zachary Chan and Hidayat Norzizan from the gamelan ensemble hammering the xylophone-like pemade and jegogan, while their ensemble mates Brian Lim and Asyeeqah Mazlan hit the pot-like gongs, reyong.

While the gamelan rhythms performed by Leslie Low and Bani Haykal on the album feel more like a subliminal motif in the background, the four guest musicians ensured that their gamelan-playing was heard loud and clear during the live performance.

The start felt shaky and slightly out-of-sync with the Observatory members joining in with guitars, drums and electronics. But once things fell into place, the East-meets-West soundscape was hypnotic in the way it tightly enveloped the audience.

Still, the non-stop performance of the five mostly instrumental tracks, each averaging 10 minutes long, might be trying for audience members more accustomed to conventional gig formats.

The band, on their part, had made adjustments, such as Continuum Part 2 being amplified for the live rendition, so as to keep up the show's momentum.

Aside from black-and-white video art that added texture to the venue's blank walls, it was also interesting to see how the gamelan musicians switched instruments, while Low and Vivian Wang took turns to provide percussive support.

Besides vocal samplings on several tracks, Continuum Part 5 was the only track featuring actual singing, with Low delivering the repetitive chants of "You are mankind…". So it was wise to end the show on this more accessible note, as the set-list excluded Part 6, the album's 17-minute closer that drones on with very subtle tonal variations.

Unlike a typical rock or pop concert, this hour-long concert seemed to be conceptualised as a seamless arts event where there was no banter from the band or chance for applause between tracks - and, fittingly, no encore, either.

For proponents of lyrics-free post-rock, this dazzling display of musicianship felt like a more intense and easier to appreciate incarnation of the album that is likely to divide even the most ardent of fans.